Dec. 10, 2020
By LILA SARICK
A coalition of independent schools, including Jewish day schools, is calling on the Ontario government to distribute federal funds intended to cover COVID-associated costs to all schools, not just publicly funded ones.
In August, Ottawa announced the Safe Return to Class Fund and committed up to $2 billion to schools for pandemic-related expenses such as improved air ventilation, increased hygiene and purchases of personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies.
Funding was allocated “based on the number of children between four and 18,” according to a statement announcing the fund. Ontario was allocated $763 million, to be distributed in fall 2020 and early 2021.
In Ontario, the funds were distributed through public and Catholic school boards, shutting out Jewish day schools, as well as other independent and faith-based schools. The schools have now launched a campaign lobbying the province to change the way it distributes the money.
“What’s disheartening is that the federal government has given money to all the provinces in order to help children go safely back to schools and the money from the federal government’s announcement is for all children from four to 18, and there’s no distinctions,” said Ira Walfish, a founder of TeachON, a grassroots group that advocates for funding for Jewish day schools, and a member of the independent school coalition.
“What’s disheartening is that this is pure pandemic funds, it’s not for education,” Walfish told the CJR.
The independent schools that have formed the Supporting Students Coalition estimate that 125,00 students are enrolled in schools that did not receive federal COVID funding. Parents are encouraged to write their MPPs to express their dissatisfaction, Walfish said.
Grassroots for Affordable Jewish Education, another Ontario advocacy group, has also urged families to join the campaign.
The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) has also argued that private schools should be eligible for the federal COVID funds.
“CIJA continues to advocate for the inclusion of Jewish community institutions – including our Jewish day schools – in a range of government support programs,” Noah Shack, CIJA’s vice president for the Greater Toronto Area, said in a statement to the CJR. “It is crucial that they continue to operate safely and meet the needs of families hit hard by the pandemic.”
CIJA was successful in having the federal government extend the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy program to not-for-profit schools.
“This subsidy provides substantial relief, which the government has committed to extend through to June 2021,” Shack said.
Asked about the distribution of federal funds, a spokesperson for the provincial education ministry replied in an email: “In Ontario, private schools operate as businesses or non-profit organizations independently of the Ministry of Education and in accordance with the legal requirements established by the Education Act. They do not receive any funding or other financial support from the government.”
Ontario funds the public and Catholic school systems but not other faith-based or independent schools.
Not all provinces have handled the federal funds the same way as Ontario. In British Columbia, for example, some money has been distributed to private schools, Walfish said.
“It would be better for everybody, not just our children, if they’re all in a safe environment,” Walfish said. “Presumably, there are some children in independent schools who might play with other children in public or Catholic schools and if they’re not protected, we can do the math.”
Ontario parents are eligible for some relief, however. CIJA advocated for the inclusion of all Ontario families in the provincial government’s education grants provided directly to parents, Shack said. The grants, disbursed last spring and this winter, provide families with between $400 and $500 per child for COVID-related costs.